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Outlaws and Hackers on the Computer Frontier

by Katie Hafner and John Markoff

Cyberpunk cover

Ostensibly a book about the social consequences of computer networks and the kinds of communities that grow up around them, Hafner and Markoff in this Cyberpunk tell the stories of three hackers.

The authors note that in the 60s and 70s, dedicated computer enthusiasts were called hackers, and were people who worked hours and hours to perfect their programs. These hackers generally did not participate in illegal activities. However, in the 80s, the term hacker began to be associated with those who were carrying out criminal activities with their computers.

As the activities of the hackers became more disruptive, the government began to watch them and in the 1990s, carried out a wave of raids to put a stop to the kinds of things they were doing. The focus of Hafner and Markoff's book is the stories of three hackers: Kevin Mitnick, a person they call Pegno, and Robert Morris. All three were caught and charged with criminal activity.

None of the three considered themselves criminals, but rather explorers of the computer community in an area where the rules were not clear. The authors describe Mitnick and Pegno as cowboy outlaws, people who were not raised within a computer community. Morris, on the other hand, grew up within the computer community and was for all intents and purposes an insider whose private activities became a public concern when on November 2, 1988, his virus broke into computers all over the world.

Mitnick is the only one of the three the authors consider as having a "dark side," unable to stop his illegal activities. The stories are interesting, but do leave the reader with a feeling of a lot of talent wasted, talent which might have been applied to more productive, less disruptive enterprises.

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